July 3, 2013

The Sensory Garden

Experiencing the senses in the garden is a fun way to notice more of what is going on around us.  Sensory awareness is a form of mindfulness that assists us in experiencing the present moment and in feeling more connected to our natural surroundings.  How can we use sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste in the garden to cultivate a calming presence?

The usual search for "sensory garden" brings up a special kind of garden created for children, with special structures and plant selections that stimulate the senses.  I think this sounds like fun and is preferred over the concrete jungle of cityscapes, yet I see some problems with the idea of creating a special child's sensory area.  For one,  it is the result of a modern day mindset that views sensory stimulation in nature as only child's play.  Adult "play" is apparently more sophisticated and "beyond sense".  In Native American cultures, the senses help identify edible and medicinal plants in the forest, help guide us when we're lost, alert us to danger, and stay tuned into the seasons.  Senses connect us to our natural instincts, and help us develop more adult skills like deep listening and deep awareness.  Listening and awareness are skills that foster deeper relationships, deeper conversations, deeper focus and concentration, and higher management capabilities as adults with sensory awareness can visualize all of the pieces of a project, all of the people involved, and gauge each's status throughout the duration of the project.

Another problem with the child sensory garden is the separation of children and adults.  Again, in Native American cultures, we don't see the separation of ages as often.  Work is play, play is work; both are learning opportunities.  A few weeks ago at Hillside Community Garden, some child visitors came to work in the garden for the first time.  We don't have a separate child's play area, but the little ones helped add buckets of leaves to the garden soil mixture of a new raised bed, helped fill cinder blocks with soil, and helped sprinkle wildflower seeds into each cinder block.  These tasks weren't created just for them - they were exactly what we were trying to accomplish, and the children were able to help with the completion of adult tasks.  Along the way they stopped at their own pace to watch and touch pill bugs and worms, and that's what we're after.  It helps the adults stop, too, and discover what's going on in the garden beyond our to-do list.  In short, children and adults mentor each other.  It is not a one-way interaction.

Growing up, my parents always told my brothers and me to "go out and play".  Though a boon for unstructured play experiences (a good thing), it relegated me to virtually zero multi-age mentoring opportunities.  I was on my own to discover good communication strategies with peers and to cultivate useful self-reliance skills.  Apparently my parents grew quite a few edible things around our yard when I was growing up.  I have zero recollection of this fact.  I wasn't ever asked or invited to help in the garden, I was never invited into the kitchen to learn how to use those fresh ingredients, and I was never encouraged at mealtime to appreciate the bounty that came out of the ground just a few feet away from the dinner table.  All of these are missed mentoring opportunities.  In Native American culture, it takes the village to cultivate the many useful skills a child can learn to be a confident, self-reliant young person.  In traditional cultures, everyone is mentoring everyone else, but it is common for children to choose a mentor that isn't his/her own parent.  This is the child tapping into instinct - an instinct that says that any one person (parent) can't possibly know everything there is to know, and diversity in mentors means learning more useful skills and finding new opportunities for testing strength and character.

The third problem with the specially-constructed children's sensory garden is the modern mindset that to bribe kids to get out and "discover" nature and think that it's fun, adults need to construct something: A special play area with a goal, structured so it is safe or useful.  This is mostly because adults have little comfort in being outside and think they need to construct something to feel comfortable.  Without knowledge of the natural world around them, adults demonstrate to children that nature is either to be feared or is boring, that everything is either uncomfortable or dangerous, and that constructing something will make us feel more secure, comfortable, or stimulated.  This is largely a result of adults not having been properly mentored when they were young about how to be in a natural environment, except maybe how to conquer it through one adventure sport or another.  Children enjoy having a special area that they can call their own.  But if they haven't been mentored by an adult to be confident in their natural surroundings, the special children's sensory garden only serves as a division between adults and children.

This brings to mind one of my most favorite documentaries ever, Mother Nature's Child: Growing Outdoors in the Media Age.  It is both moving and inspiring to anyone who feels called to mentor either children or adults.

So...you might be wondering how to cultivate sensory awareness in your non-constructed sensory garden???  The next time you're working in the yard or garden and you find yourself drifting into thought, pick a sense.  Stop and look around.  Take some deep breaths.  Look with non-focused eyes and take in the whole scene, then focus in on a few of the moving objects - kids, bees, the dog, whatever.  Then focus in on the plants immediately surrounding you.  Check in on their wellbeing.  Are there indications of vitality or pest damage?  Can you see a pest or beneficial insect?  Enjoy the surrounding colors, appreciate the scents, the sun and wind on your skin.  Taste an herb, edible flower petal, or berry.  Do this every 15 minutes as you work in the garden (I set a vibrating alarm on my phone, really!), and eventually you will discover that you do it automatically as you work - no need to set alarms or separate work from play from relaxation.  Also, in order to stay present, I carry a notebook with me (now it's a notebook on my fancy phone, but a regular notebook is just as great).  Write down garden or other to-dos as they come into your mind so that you don't have to constantly hold them in your mind in order to not forget them.  Keep the list current.  You can also write down details about a bug or spider you saw, identify them later, and learn about them.  Better yet, show your kids and learn together!

The all-time best sense to cultivate in the garden, which is way underrated, is hearing/sound.  When was the last time you really listened?  Birds teach us a great amount of awareness.  Just in the past few days, they've told me when my cat is coming, when they're feeding their young, when a hawk is flying through, when they're marking their territory, when I should be inside napping because it's too hot, when they want to fly in for a berry and are waiting for me to signal permission.  By listening, I've been able to identify the birds that surround my home, and what their sounds mean.  Recall a bird sound you hear.  This is another great opportunity to use that notebook.  What did the bird look like?  Then get a good bird identification book and begin your journey of learning the nature that surrounds you.  Smart phones make this easy because we can take pictures, record sound, make notes, and download apps that let us do the research as we are experiencing it.  Was the bird male or female, young or old?  What is its life cycle?  Does it migrate or overwinter here?   Bird language deepens our connection to sense of place.  No need to wish we were in some beautiful forested or rural place away from the city to experience nature.

Sensory experiences surround us and are waiting to teach us, the mentors and the students, to know and love the place that we're in.  This is true presence.  As we tune into nature, we learn about the specific plants and animals that we are protecting by being caretaker of certain place.  Our yard is our own sensory garden, no matter the location.  Check back soon as I write more about bird language and experiencing nature like owls, deer, and foxes!